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Tolerated Drug Bars Largely In Criminal Hands

Den Bosch,Netherlands, 8th July 2005

Tolerated cannabis cafés, or so-called ‘coffee shops’, are often run by criminals. The total number of ‘coffee shops’ in the Netherlands is decreasing, according to studies sent to the Lower House yesterday by Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner.

The number of coffee shops fell last year by 2.3 percent from 754 in 2003 to 737 in 2004, continuing the downward trend of preceding years. The number of municipalities with at least one coffee shop fell from 105 to 103 (22 percent of all municipalities).

Over half of all the coffee shops are located in the five municipalities with more than 200,000 residents (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht and Eindhoven). The annual turnover of all coffee shops is estimated at 211 to 283 million euros, according to Donner.

In two cities prominent in the sector, many of the coffee shop operators have criminal records. In Amsterdam, 78 percent of the cannabis retailers have a history of crime, in Venlo (close to Germany) as many as 83 percent. Donner is examining possibilities for restricting the issue of coffee shop permits to people with criminal records.

The Dutch coffee shop system is unique in the world. One of the reasons why the branch is vulnerable to organised crime is what is known as the ‘back door policy’. This means the shops may sell cannabis, but not purchase it. Several political parties have been urging legalising the cultivation and buying of cannabis, but Donner refuses.

In spite of the large number of coffee shops, 30 percent of the cannabis in the Netherlands is still sold outside this circuit, via “several thousand” illegal sales points. “This involves sales from home, from bars or via delivery services.”

Sales points not covered by the toleration policy can only be closed and boarded up if they cause demonstrable nuisance. But Donner announced he is examining possibilities for “expanding the existing range of judicial instruments for closing homes from which drugs are sold”.

Coffee shops may sell a maximum of 5 grams of cannabis per customer and keep a maximum of 500 grams of cannabis or hash in stock. Selling to juveniles is prohibited. Along with the existing criteria, about half the municipalities also impose additional criteria for coffee shops, such as specific closing times and the condition that the shops must be located at least 250 metres from schools.

Coffee shops are inspected an average of four times a year. One third of the municipalities with coffee shops have no fixed rules for sanctions in the case of violations. Formal warnings and closure for a certain period are the most frequently used sanctions; definitive closure is seldom used. The coffee shops keep the rules for the most part, Donner stated. 

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